Far Cry 3’s writer talks rabbit holes, racism, and colonialism in a game he claims is misunderstood
Warning: this post contains some things that may be considered spoilers, and some things that most definitely are.
Jeffrey Yohalem is the lead writer of Far Cry 3. The game’s story has been criticized as being filled clichéd writing and well-worn tropes. Kotaku called it “dumb”, while Polygon wrote that the game often felt “exploitative and pointless.”
It’s easy to think we’re going to be over-analytical here. Yet, according to Yohalem, based on the responses he’s seen online, people aren’t being analytical enough. “The story is itself something that can be solved, like a riddle,” he told the Report. “What makes me sad is that people don’t engage with playing the riddle, trying to solve the riddle. It’s like a scavenger hunt where people aren’t collecting the first clue.”
The first words you see when you start up Far Cry 3’s story aren’t a tip or hint. They’re a quote from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.’ “In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
That quote from Lewis Carroll isn’t just for fun; Alice’s descent and journey through Wonderland mirrors Jason’s own journey in many ways, but that won’t be obvious to players unless they try to actively hunt for clues and pay attention. “The Alice in Wonderland quotes are there to clue people in. You analyze them like you would any other text and they let you know what’s going on,” Yohalem said.
For example, the islands Far Cry 3 takes place on are called the Rook Islands. “Rook means to steal from, or be a fraud, as well as the piece from chess. So it’s like a game that is a fraud,” Yohalem explained. “‘Through The Looking Glass’ is a chessboard. The landscape that Alice is moving through is a chessboard, and she can only move according to the rules of chess, and the characters she meets are on the chessboard.”
Yet Yohalem said that he hasn’t seen anyone connect those dots. He said it was important that the deeper significance of the story be kept optional, that players not be forced to interpret, but it’s been somewhat disheartening to notice a lack of discussion. “My expectation that people would discover that framework on their own has been challenged,” he said.
Players vs. developers vs. journalists
I asked Yohalem if, since it seems like his message isn’t catching on, he would alter his approach in upcoming writing. “No,” he told me. “What I’m hoping is that through talking about this game and the Internet talking about this game, is that all this stuff will come to light, and the audience will say next time, ‘We want more of this.’”
“This all comes from my sense that players shouldn’t be talked down to. For me, there’s a kind of caustic relationship that’s developed between players and developers. It’s really a bad, abusive relationship, because developers say ‘Players won’t get it anyway, so we’re just gonna do something that holds their hand.’ It doesn’t respect them, and then players say ‘I hate this,’ or ‘I hate that,’ or ‘This game sucks,’ and that hurts developers. So it’s like a cycle. It also feels like critics aren’t looking for meaning in the game, either. So it’s like all sides have just stopped listening to each other.”
“So what I’m hoping is, at least Far Cry 3 will create a conversation between people about what they expect from video games and how much the player can be involved in an analysis of the game,” Yohalem said. “Once that happens, developers will have to deliver.”
Yohalem likened game development to an actor on stage. An audience understands that when an actor is on stage, every movement, every word, every gesture means something. Gamers, however, haven’t come to that point yet for video games. Yohalem thinks it’s because developers haven’t been trusting gamers enough, haven’t been designing their games around that principle. Once they do, Yohalem thinks the bad relationship can go away.
So why put so much effort into this? Yohalem’s tone dropped and his speech softened. “I think we have a very limited amount of time on this earth, and it should be spent doing valuable things,” he said. “For me, the worst thing would be to waste the player’s time.”
Proof is in the pudding (or bullets)
So are there other messages in Far Cry 3 that people have missed? Plenty. The sad thing, Yohalem pointed out, is that many of these hidden messages could put to rest the troubles that weigh on critics’ minds.
Jason’s ethnicity and background, for example, contribute to a common critique of the game: that it espouses a story of white colonialism, where the untrained white boy from America comes to save the damsel, become one with the natives, and lead them to victory over the encroaching, typically corporate-minded forces. Yohalem told the Report that’s exactly what players are supposed to see, but they need to take it one step further.
“It’s a first-person game, and Jason is a 25-year old white guy from Los Angeles. From Hollywood. So his view of what’s going on on this island is his own view, and you happen to be looking through his eyes, so you’re seeing his view,” Yohalem explained. “It’s set on an island in the South Pacific, so immediately the thing that comes to mind is the white colonial trope, the Avatar trope. I started with that, and it’s like, ‘Here’s what pop culture thinks about traveling to a new place,’ and the funny thing is, that’s an exaggeration of most games, they just don’t expose it.”
“For example, GTA is a colonization game. You come to New York, you colonize New York. Most open world games function that way. Ezio comes to Rome and colonizes Rome. To take that to its extreme, exaggerating those tropes is how you reveal them. The exaggeration of that trope is what happens in Far Cry 3.”
In one of the game’s trailers, Jason is seen having sex with Citra, a shamanistic princess figure and sister to Vaas. Jason stands triumphantly after he’s finished, and declares to the tribe, “We are the warriors of the Rakyat, and I will lead you to glory!” Yohalem explained the scene as another instance of tropes being intentionally exaggerated. “When you’re with Citra in front of the warriors, that’s Jason’s fantasy, you know the white guy from LA has sex with this beautiful woman, it’s very gratuitous, and it’s in front of the whole tribe. It’s a fantasy that we’ve seen in pop culture cinema.”
Again, the problem comes with taking the story on its face. “What I didn’t expect was the people who half-listen. If you half-listen to the story, it seems like it’s reinforcing tropes that I disagree with,” Yohalem said. “People will get 2/3 through the game or halfway through the game, and they’ll think that they know and they stop listening. And it’s like no no no no no, we’re gonna take that and totally loop it back on what you think it is, and we’re agreeing with the critique!”
Caution: I am about to talk about one of the game’s possible endings. There are no spoilers more spoilerific than this. You have been warned.
So what kind of critique is Yohalem referring to? How does he “loop it back?” The game has two possible endings, and in one, you can choose to stay with Citra on the island and be the ultimate warrior. Sounds perfect for the violence-hungry gamer or action movie hero, right? Guy kills bad guys, guy gets girl, guy is immortalized as a badass. But that’s not what happens in Far Cry 3.
Citra, the damsel in distress, kills you if you choose to stay with her. Yohalem is expecting players to follow along with Jason’s ideas about Citra being in need of saving because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect. “It’s like okay, if you chose her, I’m gonna give you extremes of what you want,” Yohalem explained. “So you have this extreme sex scene with her which is very graphic with the sounds he’s making, and she stabs him, and there’s extreme amounts of blood. At the end, she says, ‘you win.’”
“Why do games treat females this way? Why is there a princess in a castle? Citra doesn’t need to be saved, it’s all Jason’s idea! Jason conjures up this whole idea that Citra needs saving and he’s gonna save her, when in reality it was all a ritual she created to find a sperm donor, and she kills him.”
“Sex, violence, and the player is killed. Here are the things that satisfy our animal side as men, but they’re subverted because it’s a female doing it. Here you’re thinking of the princess in the castle. It’s like if Princess Peach stabbed Mario.” Yohalem laughed. “Now that I’m thinking about it, that final scene should have been Citra castrating Jason. Seriously, that’s the point! It is like, ‘You win, motherfucker!’ It’s totally like, ‘Fuck you, you misogynist idiot!’”
Far Cry 3 is playing with your expectations. You’d think a knife to the chest would make us realize that.
All a dream?
Far Cry 3 plays heavily on dreams and visions. Jason is an unreliable narrator, and his visions could just as well be delusions. Did you really cheer the Rakyat into battle? Are the Rakyat even real in the first place? Did you, a scared white boy from Los Angeles, take down a slaving operation headed by a mohawk-sporting psychopath? Most importantly, can you read this article and take the knowledge with you into forums to prove strangers on the Internet wrong? Maybe, maybe not. Yohalem says there’s no one correct way to interpret the events of Far Cry 3.
“It’s up to players to decide. If the work is good, if there’s not one interpretation where people can explore what it is, it becomes their narrative. It’s like Alice’s journey: is Alice’s journey a dream or not? That’s what I love about Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, that he doesn’t have to say it was all a dream,” Yohalem said. “My goal was to create something that people could analyze. Analysis is fun because there are many interpretations. If there’s just one interpretation then it’s not worth analyzing.”